Sociology Of Disasters Research Paper

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Disasters are nonroutine events in societies or their larger subsystems (e.g., regions and communities) that involve conjunctions of physical conditions with social definitions of human harm and social disruption. The sociological study of disasters requires attention to their special character as social problems (Fritz 1961, Hewitt 1983, Stallings 1995, Kreps and Drabek 1996, and Quarantelli 1998). The development of knowledge about disasters before, when, and after they occur (see summaries of the disaster literature by Barton 1969, Dynes 1970, Quarantelli and Dynes 1977, Kreps 1984, Drabek 1986 and Mileti 1999) necessarily draws on theories of social process and structure.

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1. Sociological Meaning Of The Term Disaster

As defined above, disasters are both physical and sociological events and, as such, inherent to all social systems. The phrase ‘nonroutine events’ distinguishes disasters as unusual and dramatic happenings from everyday issues and concerns. The dual reference to ‘physical conditions’ and ‘social definitions’ means that each is individually necessary and both are collectively sufficient for disasters to occur in social time and space. The designation ‘societies or their larger subsystems’ means that human harm and social disruption must have relevance for larger social systems. The death of an individual and its impact on his or her family, therefore, is not a disaster unless a rare sequence of actions is triggered that has broader societal impact (e.g., consequences of the assassination of a political elite in an unstable nation). Similarly, the fact that thousands of people die on a nation’s highways in any given year does not mean that a disaster has occurred. But the explosion of a terrorist bomb in the heart of a city, even if the number killed was significantly lower than the annual highway death toll, would be consistent with the above definition of disaster. The 1979 nuclear power plant accident in the United States (Three Mile Island) was an emergency and certainly a potential disaster. Potentiality became reality in 1986 at the Chernobyl plant in the former Soviet Union. Poverty, hunger, disease, and social conflict are chronic societal concerns. Economic depressions, famines, epidemics, and wars are disasters as defined above. Global warming and ozone depletion are defined objectively and subjectively as environmental hazards or risks. The possible disastrous consequences of these hazards, including secondary effects such as sea-level rises in the oceans, remain matters of scientific and public debate. A nuclear attack is a disaster for which there are historical precedents. A nuclear war is a possibility that heretofore has only been simulated (Kreps and Drabek 1996).

The above, precise sociological definition of disaster is important for three reasons. First, the term itself is common parlance (e.g., ‘my day was a disaster’) and, as such, much too inclusive to be useful. But despite this inclusiveness, the term is part of the nomenclature of those having responsibility for dealing with actual or potential events. These same events are also of interest to sociologists. Because ‘disaster’ has bureaucratic as well as popular meaning (e.g., disaster declarations), its usage necessarily is central to the mix of social definitions and physical conditions that sociologists must consider. Second, while all concepts in science are nominal, consensus about objects of inquiry (in this case, what disasters are) is essential to the development of systematic knowledge about them. Third, disaster research emerged as a post-World War II research specialty within the social problems literature in sociology. That literature was and remains very broad. Identifying the special features of disasters is important for examining a broad range of environmental, technological, and sociopolitical events on their own terms and for comparing collective action related to these events with those of social problems generally (Erikson 1976, 1994). Disasters are no more or less important than other social problems, but they are different, and their uniqueness is of substantial importance theoretically.

2. The Special Character Of Disasters As Social Problems

A core theoretical issue in the social problems literature (Spector and Kitsuse 1977) is to account for how social problems are constructed through claims-making activities (i.e., collective action that asserts the existence of conditions and defines them as problems), and then how their life histories are determined by response activities (i.e., collective action directed to addressing these socially constructed problems). The life histories of disasters can be compared with other social problems because this social structure of claims-making and response activities is the core object of study. However, crime, poverty, hunger, disease, violence, and many other social problems that are studied have an open-ended quality in social time and space. Disasters do not. Indeed, disasters have a special feature that facilitates their analysis as social problems: the theoretical centrality of a specific event. Reference to a specific event is critical because, first, any disaster can be demarcated specifically in social time and space, and second, distinctions can be made among pre-, trans-, and post-event claims-making and response activities at the community, regional, national, or international levels.

The fact that disasters are nonroutine events makes them strategic research sites for their analysis as social problems. Prior to an event, claims-making and response activities within localities (as opposed to nation states) focus on future events for which the probabilities of occurrence are small. With the exception of hazards managers and selected others, disaster prevention and mitigation activities at this systemic level have low salience to government officials, economic and political elites, and the public at large. In a sense, this is a rational response because the annual probability that a disaster will affect given individuals or localities directly and severely is, indeed, quite low. This does not mean that individuals in harms way are insensitive to hazards that threaten them. But it does suggest that they are preoccupied with more immediate problems and concerns of daily living, and that there are any number of disincentives to being proactive (Turner et al. 1986). The resulting social structure of claims-making and response activities about putative events tends to be subtle and is often contentious. Even at societal levels, where annual probabilities of events and aggregated losses are higher, the prominence of disasters relative to other issues can never be assumed.

However, a major transformation occurs when threats are perceived as imminent, or actual events occur. In effect, nonissues become focal public concerns. The more severe the impacts, the more massive the formal and informal mobilization that follows at local, regional, national, and international levels. Existing groups and/organizations restructure everyday routines, and emergent structures of various types are socially created. Claims-making and response activities by a panorama of interlocking structural forms are directed to demands that are both objectively and subjectively labeled as acute. Thus, disasters are nonroutine problems because social processes related to them change dramatically, depending on what stage of their life histories is being considered. But whatever the stage (pre-, trans-, or postevent), disasters are catalysts of collective action at smaller to more inclusive systemic levels.

Prior to their occurrence, disasters are socially constructed as hazards or risks of various types (Clarke and Short 1993). Claims-making and response activities are directed to defining the magnitude of possible impacts and taking specific steps to prevent, mitigate, or prepare for these impacts. As noted above, these steps are constrained by social processes that are as likely to generate organized opposition as support. When disasters occur, terms such as emergencies, crises or catastrophes are used to capture increasing levels of severity. Claims-making activities are no longer at issue—i.e., there is a conjunction of physical conditions and social definitions—and response activities are directed to dealing with the immediate consequences of physical impact and social disruption. After disasters occur, the events become relevant to the evolution of impacted social systems. It must be recognized, however, that any social changes that follow must be interpreted in light of already existing trends (Bates and Peacock 1993, Peacock et al. 1997). Collective action is directed to long-term reconstruction of physical structures and infrastructures and restoration of the social order.

Unraveling the drama of disaster events requires reliance on basic sociological concepts. Thus, past research has drawn heavily on collective behavior theory, organizational theory, the integration of collective behavior and/organizational theories, role theory, and the integration of collective behavior, organizational, and role theories (Barton 1969, Weller and Quarantelli 1973, Perrow 1984, Kreps and Bosworth 1993, Dynes and Tierney 1994, and Webb 1998). The field clearly has become multidisciplinary in more recent decades, with strong intersections among the natural, social, and policy sciences. There remains, however, a very strong sociological core within ongoing research. That core characterizes both major research emphases within mainstream American sociology and a growing body of disaster research internationally.

3. Disaster Research

The origins of disaster research can most readily be traced to the US Strategic Bombing Surveys of World War II (Quarantelli 1994). In this historical context, the prototypical hazards or risks were weapons, ultimately nuclear weapons. The prototypical events studied were war-time bombings of cities and regions (primarily in Germany and Japan). The historical context within which these bombings took place was a global war of unprecedented proportions. In general, the war-time studies showed that civilian populations were remarkably resilient in the face of sustained bombing attacks. But with a rapidly developing nuclear arms race, there was a very practical rationale for the subsequent funding of research on peacetime disasters—to study preparedness for and response to events that parallel war-time situations (i.e., acute impacts of considerable magnitude and scope). Prior to World War II, there was no systematic program of disaster research in sociology. Following the war, the above rationale supported the development of disaster research in the United States during the next 25 years, allowing the field to become an established research specialty within sociology. With funding from defense related government agencies, studies at the University of Chicago (National Opinion Research Center) and two other state universities (Maryland and Oklahoma) were initiated in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These were followed by a series of studies under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences—National Research Council from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Then in 1963, the Disaster Research Center was established and has been in continuous operation ever since. This Center was located for over 20 years at the Ohio State University (1963–85), and it presently resides at the University of Delaware (1985–present). Disaster research became an established specialty within sociology primarily because a critical mass of professionally trained sociologists in the above and other universities completed most of the studies undertaken prior to the late 1960s. While a public policy rationale was important to those funding the work, the interests of university researchers and the students they trained were theoretical as well. The contemporary attention to systemic structures and processes continues to be grounded in the earlier studies, although considerations of possible war-time applications (Perry 1982) have been supplanted by concerns about a much broader range of societal hazards and risks.

Like the strategic bombing studies, the early to more recent research on peacetime disasters have highlighted the remarkable absorptive capacities of social systems, contradicting conventional notions that during a disaster victims will panic, that those expected to respond will abandon occupational roles, that community structure will break down, and that antisocial behavior will be rampant. Having systematically debunked such myths about disaster behavior, the more interesting questions to sociologists have related to describing and explaining structural continuity and change before, during, and after an event. The earlier reference to claims-making and response activities of social systems provides a very useful way of framing these questions. Where the majority of studies prior to the 1970s focused on collective action during the immediate emergency period, contemporary research gives more balanced attention to disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness, and long-term recovery.

Sociology no longer dominates disaster research. There has been growing attention since the late 1960s to studying an expanded range of peacetime hazards and disasters on their own terms. There has been growing involvement of other social sciences (geography, economics, psychology, political science, anthropology, public policy, and public administration) in studying these hazards and disasters. It has become increasingly necessary to wed social science research and findings with those of natural sciences and engineering specialties (seismology, meteorology, structural engineering, and many others). In effect, disaster research has become a multidisciplinary, applied field that seeks practical solutions to putative or agreed upon problems posed by actual or potential events. Sociologists pursuing their own applied or basic research interests cannot do so in an intellectual vacuum.

4. The International Context Of Disaster Research In Sociology

Just as disaster research has become a multidisciplinary applied field in the United States and internationally, ironically, fundamental sociological questions are being emphasized by scholars outside of the United States (Lars Clausen, Wolf R. Dombrowski, John K. Schorr from Germany; Kitao Abe, Hirotada Hiros, Ritsuo Akimoto from Japan; Tom Horlick-Jones, Barry Turner, Nicholas Pidgeon from England; Charles Chandessais, Claude Gilbert from France; Carlo Pelanda, Bruna De Marchi from Italy; Kenneth Hewitt, Joseph Scanlon from Canada; Boris Porfiriev, Konstantin Popov from Russia; Neil R. Britton from Australia and New Zealand; Uriel Rosenthal from The Netherlands; and many others from both industrialized and developing societies). The involvement of these scholars has been very beneficial. They are raising important theoretical issues about social structure and disaster. They are questioning the dominance of one country (United States) or a single paradigm on the evolution of the field. They are concerned about the historical preoccupation with a narrow range of events (rapid as opposed to slow onset disasters). Such issues merit serious attention.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue that continues to be discussed internationally became the title of a recent book edited by a pioneer disaster researcher (Quarantelli 1998): What is a Disaster? This volume essentially culminates a multiyear dialogue among social scientists from the United States and other countries on defining the core subject matter for sociology and, hopefully, disaster research as a whole. Despite the wealth of alternative issues and perspectives that have been presented, the precise definition used in this research paper captures the substantial underlying agreement that exists internationally. Explicitly or implicitly, this agreement is based on two factors. First, there is a strong commitment to using the tools of science to conceptualize and measure disaster as a sociological construct. Second, there is an effort to extract general knowledge about the relationship between social structure and disaster from studies of particular historical and cultural contexts. The international character of disaster studies therefore provides the comparative approach that is essential for defining the limits to which extant theoretical relationships and models can be generalized. To that end, it is advantageous to maintain the broad range of environmental, technological, and sociopolitical events subsumed by the characterization of disasters as nonroutine social problems.


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